Christie Faye Collins is Autistic. Like many in the disability community, finding a partner isn't always easy. So, she is creating NOMI. A new dating app specifically for the disability and neurodiverse community. www.nomiconnect.net is still in the testing phase and Christie and her team hope to have it up and running in 2023.
Evan Kelly 0:06
Welcome again to the Developmental Disabilities Association's Encouraging Abilities podcast. We are here to connect with people in the disability and neurodivergent communities to help tell their stories. As much as 25% of Canadians identify with having a disability so there are certainly plenty of stories to tell and awareness to raise. Today we are joined by Christie Faye Collins. Christie is a young web developer based in Victoria, BC. She is also part of the Autistic community and has built a new dating app called Nomi, that targets of disability in neurodivergent communities. So welcome to our podcast, Christie.
Christie Faye Collins 0:42
Hi, Evan. It's so nice to be here. Thanks for having me.
Evan Kelly 0:44
Yeah. Thanks for joining me today. So tell me a little bit about yourself.
Christie Faye Collins 0:48
Yeah, well, my name is Christie. I'm a part of the neurodivergent community. I'm autistic. I live in Victoria. I recently moved here from Montreal a few months ago, and I had grown up on the west coast. So it feels really good to be back home. And right now I'm working on an app called Nomi, which is for the disability and neurodivergent communities.
Evan Kelly 1:11
Now, Nomi, the website for those listening is nomiconnect.net. So that's where they can find you. So you are a web developer, so are you a one person army in this thing? Or tell me a little bit about how you're putting this together.
Christie Faye Collins 1:29
Yeah, so I'm a web developer. But when I first started this company, when I first had the idea, I quickly realized that it would be a lot of work to both be the CEO, and do all of the technical work. And I also would have had to learn a native web development language, which is what you need to know to build an app for the App Store or Google Play. So I personally am handling all of the non-technical stuff. And I have a couple of people working on the iOS app. They're currently working on a prototype so that we can start user testing very soon. And yeah, they've just been absolutely amazing. We get to bounce ideas off of each other and it feels a lot less lonely, having a company, having a thing that I'm working on every day, without having any external kind of validation, or having people who I can talk to you when things get difficult. So that's just been absolutely wonderful. It's a great experience working with them. And they're both really passionate about the project as well.
Evan Kelly 2:37
Alright, sounds good. So to be clear, for listeners, that Nomi is still sort of in the testing in prototype stage, it's not up and running yet?
Christie Faye Collins 2:46
Exactly, yeah. So we're hoping to have it up and running by 2023. Of course, also, if anybody wants to participate in user testing, you can send me an email through the website. But yeah, for now, we are just working on a prototype so that we can really hash out exactly what features people really want and need. And we can meet and hopefully exceed those needs with the first run of the app. And then we'll have it actually running by 2023. That's the goal.
Evan Kelly 3:19
Now, where did you come up with the name Nomi?
Christie Faye Collins 3:22
Yeah, so I wanted to find something short and unique that people might find fun to say. I was bouncing around a few ideas, thinking maybe something alluding to disability or neurodivergence. But after a while, I was like, "Okay, I'll just figure something out. It'll be a placeholder for now." And I had recently finished watching - rewatching, my favorite show called sense8 on Netflix. And one of the character's names is Nomi. She's a self proclaimed hacktivist, and just an all around amazing and strong woman. And the name also just so happened to sound like "know me," like k-n-o-w-m-e, get to know me. So I felt like that was very fitting for an app that connects people with one another.
Evan Kelly 4:08
Now, what first inspired you to turn your efforts towards a dating app for the neurodivergent community?
Christie Faye Collins 4:16
That's a good question. I suppose I was kind of an amalgamation of a few things. I feel like community has been such an essential part of my life. I am very close to the people that I'm close to, if that makes sense. Like, I don't have very light friendships, I don't take relationships very lightly. And I know that that's true for a lot of people. So I just have a few select people and I honestly don't know what I would do without them. So I really wanted to aid other people in finding that. I feel like for myself, I was really fortunate to have found the friend group I found, I kind of fell into it. I was friends with my sister's friends, and then I found my own friends through them. So I think that that was a wonderful experience. For me it was, it was really lucky, I just felt very lucky that that happened to me. And of course, I developed those friendships and relationships past that point. But for a lot of people, it's more challenging for them to be in social environments. I didn't know that I was autistic at the time. So I tended to go out more, and I didn't realize why I was so burnt out after. So I would go out and do the things, and meet the people, and then be exhausted for days because I didn't realize that I was overstimulating myself. So now it actually is more challenging for me to find friends and develop friendships. Because what a lot of people want to do is go to bars, go to parties, go to the club, and I just can't do that. Can't do that as consistently anymore. So we need to find alternatives. And a lot of my friend group just so happened to also be neurodivergent. So that's another reason why I was so lucky, not knowing that I was autistic and finding friends who were also any array of neurodivergent. Yeah, so I really just wanted to create something that could help people who may feel overstimulated in social environments and find it more challenging to get out there and find friends and relationships.
Evan Kelly 6:36
So I guess it's safe to say that through your own research and experience that others in the neurodiverse community were having these same issues.
Christie Faye Collins 6:44
Yeah, exactly. The more that I learned about neurodivergence and talked to folks in the community, the more I realized that friendship is an issue that is so real for so many people, finding friends, maintaining friendships is a real challenge. And so many people find themselves feeling isolated and lonely because of it. And there's never going to be a clear answer to this problem. But the goal in creating an app for people to build their community is that we can provide a resource for people to intentionally build relationships from a place of common experience. A lot of neurodivergent people also including myself, appreciate structure. So taking a structured approach to dating and friendship by intentionally seeking out people in your community with similar interests could be really beneficial.
Evan Kelly 7:31
Yeah, absolutely. Now not to get too personal in your own experiences in sort of finding a partner, did you find that difficult in your in your adult age?
Christie Faye Collins 7:42
I definitely had more luck dating within my friend circle than online, so I didn't actually find it to be too much of a challenge. Before I knew I was autistic, I inadvertently surrounded myself with other neurodivergent folks who I felt I was able to relate very well with. And it was actually quite easy to start partnerships from some of those friendships. But it was mostly because I was really good at following the romantic scripts. So many of us learned very well established rules around romance and navigating romantic relationships. And I found the romance scripts to be an easy one to follow, personally. I've been partnered now for nearly four years, but neither of us knew that we were divergent - neurodivergent when we started dating, we just had a great connection and understanding right off the bat and looking back, I realized that part of that can most likely be attributed to our brains working in similar ways. But yeah, the real challenge for me in relationships came down to friendships, because I feel like there's less of a well established script for friendships, it's kind of easy to start hanging out with somebody, I used to be a hairstylist, so I learned to be very good at small talk. But when it really came down to maintaining those relationships, I needed people to be very, very clear that their intention was to be friends with me. And we would need to hang out consistently. And I needed kind of a more consistent, like validation and communication with that than a lot of people were able or willing to provide. And I probably also didn't know that I needed that at the time either. So the beginning part of friendships was difficult for me and still continues to be and there's also less of an established script for breaking up with friends as well. Because if a romantic relationship isn't working, you break up you go through that process, there's a bit of a grieving process a lot of the time and then you move on and you find another romantic partner if that's what you want. But with friendships, friendships tend to just fizzle out. One of you ghosts, one of you moves on and it just fades into the background. And that I don't know what to do with. That's a bigger challenge for me.
Evan Kelly 10:11
I understand. So when it comes to sort of putting this, this app and this website together, what sort of feedback have you received? I mean are you hearing from people in your community that are saying, "Hey, this is a great idea. I've tried sort of the online, regular online dating sites," if you will, like, you know, OKCupid, or something like that. Were they having less success through those type of sites? Do you have any any sort of data or insight on that?
Christie Faye Collins 10:40
Yeah, I mean, I have a very simple 123, on a scale of one to three, how would you rate your experience with the dating apps, you've used, and on this specific survey, we don't have too many responses to go off of, but the overwhelming response, so 50% of responders said their experience is a 1 with other dating apps. 42% of responders say that their experience is a 2. And only one person said that their experience is a 3, like the best experience with other dating apps. So yeah, that's kind of more just numbers based. But the real feedback that we've been receiving is that dating apps are not personal enough, you don't get to see enough about the person to make an informed decision on whether or not you want to start a conversation with them even. And the conversations kind of just fizzle out into nothing. And you're left wondering if you should start the conversation again, or just move on. So there's a lot of bad, like communication issues with dating apps. And there's also design issues, accessibility issues. So bright colors, animations, pop ups that come up asking you to pay for different features. And like screen reader issues. A lot of people have problems with dating apps, most people who use screen readers and dating apps together, encounter some sort of issues, not having alt descriptions on the images, not being able to navigate the app easily, but still needing connections. So doing it anyway. And it just ends up being a really draining experience after all that. So yeah, overwhelmingly, the response has been quite negative toward other dating apps. And we're trying to collect all of that feedback in order to avoid the problems that other dating apps have created for people in the community.
Evan Kelly 12:54
Gotcha. So I'm just gonna take a little quick break here right now for a PSA for the engineering health lab at KITE Research Institute. At the University Health Network, they are hosting a virtual conference on the national parks accessibility in Canada, this is a free event that will take place from August 23 to the 25th 2022, you can visit their website to register or submit an application as a speaker if you'd like, that's www.parksaccessibilityconference.ca. So that's all about making sure our national parks are accessible to everyone. And just a reminder, we are speaking with Christie Faye Collins, she has developed Nomi, a new dating apps, we're talking about online dating for the neurodiverse community. So obviously, starting a business like this is not cheap. I mean, you're doing a lot of the legwork yourself, are you are you doing this all on your own dollar? Are you seeking outside investment to make this happen?
Christie Faye Collins 13:52
We are seeking outside investments. So at the moment, we are bootstrapping the whole thing. We're just putting together different bits of free software, anything that we can access for free or virtually free. And that will actually get us to a place where we can present that to investors. So once we have our functional prototype, we'll be able to say hey, this is exactly what we're going to create. We've done user testing, we know that people need this, and then they'll be able to invest knowing exactly where their money will be going. So that will hopefully be happening soon. Living is not cheap. So I will need money very soon anyway. So yeah, that will definitely propel us in the right direction once we have investment.
Evan Kelly 14:50
So this is really meant to be a money making venture for you. This is going to be your job and your profession.
Christie Faye Collins 14:56
It will be, yeah. Many startups don't have have actual revenue real income for a couple of years. So we'll have to ensure that we can sustain ourselves for the first couple of years. But eventually, we will be making revenue off of this. And we're also planning on hiring, so far, most of our team is disabled or neurodivergent. And we'll keep up that trend throughout our whole hiring processes. So the internal team will be compiled, comprised of the community who tends to have the lowest income in Canada. So yeah, we'll want to have enough money to be able to pay fair wages to our disabled neurodivergent employees, and for me to make a living, and hopefully be able to give back to the community in a big way as well.
Evan Kelly 15:52
Now, here's a sort of a $64 million question, what about typically developed people or those people who don't identify with a disability or anything? Can they join? And if not, how do you, how do you make sure that there's only people on on the site who identify with these groups?
Christie Faye Collins 16:14
Yeah, so that was actually the question on our previous survey, as well, I had assumed going into this that neurodivergent, and disabled people would not want a neurotypical able bodied non disabled people to be a part of the app, because some people don't feel safe around people who are not a part of their community, and as a minority community safety is our primary concern. So I put the question out there assuming that the response would be no, it should just be a space for us. But we had a huge response in favor of having all types of people a part - to be a part of the app. So that's really lovely. It's, it's great that everyone wants to intermingle, socialize with each other. A lot of people gave personal feedback that they want to meet allistic people, they want to meet non disabled people. They just mostly want to be a part of a community where they're the majority for once. So yeah, they will be able to use the app, I suppose it just comes down to whether they want to be a part of it. So they're more than welcome to join, they can definitely be a part of it. Some people, there will be an option to just show users, just show other profiles that are similar to yours. So if you identify as disabled, you'll have the option to view other disabled folks. That's kind of what we're trying to navigate right now. So if you don't want to see people who are not, quote unquote, "like you," that's okay. That's something that you can do. But the default will be that you can view everyone who's using the app, and everyone who's using the app can view you as well.
Evan Kelly 18:10
I guess those like, how would you screen that? Like, how would you be sure that someone signing on signing up is a member of one of those groups?
Christie Faye Collins 18:19
We can't, it kind of just comes down to partially trust, we're also going to have a profile validation, but just to ensure that the person who created the profile is themselves. So we're not going to gatekeep for disability or neurodivergence, it will be kind of an honour system. So if you are neurodivergent, in the signup process, you can say I'm neurodivergent, if you're disabled, you can say you're disabled, if you're both you can say both. And then otherwise, there will be an option for not neurodivergent or disabled. And then from there, it will be at your own discretion after you filter for users, quote unquote, "like me." So let's say I'm autistic, I would select neurodivergent in the signup process. And then when I start using the app, I can filter for other neurodivergent people. There won't be like different categories, at least not yet. Because we do want to keep users' identities as private and safe as possible. So just using the larger umbrella terms, I'll be able to see other neurodivergent users, and then I will make the decision whether I feel safe meeting up with them or not.
Evan Kelly 19:41
Right, kind of pretty much just like every other dating website, I guess there's there is a bit of an honour system, you got to you know, unleash a little bit of trust, I guess. So, is the app going to be designed for a global audience, do you have visions of making this in multiple languages?
Christie Faye Collins 19:56
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Right now we are only releasing to Canada, we're going to do it on a kind of rollout basis hitting the biggest cities first and then expanding to the whole country. And then we want to expand to the States, that would be our next international goal. And from there, I definitely want it to be global. I don't know exactly what that looks like yet. But that is the ultimate goal.
Evan Kelly 20:33
Is this going to be free to join to start with? Or is there going to be a monthly fee, or is there going to be like ads that you can run to generate? How do you plan to generate revenue? I guess is the main question.
Christie Faye Collins 20:46
Yeah, we're playing with a couple ideas right now, I feel like the so the main business models or payment structures that a lot of apps are using at the moment is called freemium. So you have your free version, and that's heavily restricted. And then you have your premium features that you can pay for on top of the free version that will not be as accessible to lower income users. So if you, if to make the same amount of money, as let's say, Bumble, we would need to have our payment structure be free, and then the premium is $29 monthly. That's what Bumble's structure is. And that's just not accessible to anyone. I don't know how people pay that much for a monthly subscription to a dating app. So what we're thinking right now is a Pay What You Can monthly or yearly subscription. We feel like that would discourage unsafe users from accessing the app easily. And we feel like if everyone pays, everyone will be able to participate equally in the app. So everyone will have equal opportunity to find connection, rather than some people having a better opportunity to access connection than others. It will be very affordable, we're thinking around $5, that would be kind of the average payment would be $5. And that would sustain us and our team and hopefully allow people access to something that could be really valuable for them.
Evan Kelly 22:32
Did you have any unexpected challenges that you faced in developing an app like this?
Christie Faye Collins 22:37
Two main things, safety, of course, is our main concern. In terms of safety, we have a few established features and kind of attitudes, I guess if that's the right word to use, I don't think that's the right word to use. But I will explain. So, in terms of safety, we will have anonymous user reporting the ability to flag profiles that contain content against our guidelines. Eventually, we will either not allow photos at first or if we can, like photos within the chat when you're messaging with somebody until we can block unwanted pictures while chatting because that's a big problem for many people. Having the identity and profile verification before being allowed to interact with users will be a big one as well, because bots are a thing. They're mostly annoying, but they can be harmful, there can be scams. So we want to make sure that the person using the app is who they say they are. And the ability to block users, consistent moderation of the app. Just any other suggestions that people have, we're very open to it, we want to establish as many features to keep our our people safe as possible. And the other thing pertaining to safety, we'll be having a few videos and guidelines, and just general recommendations for keeping yourself safe outside of the app. So there will, of course be recommendations for keeping yourself safe and navigating the app itself. But outside of the app, we want to ensure that people are protecting themselves as well. So partnering with different organizations who have videos around consent and around establishing boundaries, and how to meet up with someone safely how to meet up in a public place and if they want to take you away from that public place, what to say or what to do. So just having a whole slew of guidelines to help users navigate interactions in general, and especially navigate interactions safely will be really big. And of course, accessibility, which I've mentioned before, that will be a challenge in developing. And that's why so many apps aren't accessible. Because it costs more money, they don't see the fast revenue response to making their app accessible. But if they made it accessible, the people who needed that accessibility would use their app. Makes sense to us. Apparently, it doesn't make sense to a lot of app creators. So yeah, making it as accessible as we possibly can constantly adding more accessibility features, and taking feedback really seriously from people who need more accessibility in technology will be a huge thing for us as well.
Evan Kelly 25:56
Yeah, I mean, accessibility is so important, you know, especially for an organization like ours. You know, I think we're about to refresh our own website. And we're, you know, that's the number one thing, we've got to make this website accessible for everybody. So I'm going to hit you with one last question. And then I'll let you go. From your perspective, has the cultural attitude towards people with disabilities changed in the last few years? How is that looking from your eyes?
Christie Faye Collins 26:24
Yeah, I mean, I feel like a bit of an imposter answering this question. So I'll do my best to only answer to the extent of my knowledge. But I know that we have come a long way in terms of disability justice in the last few years, in the last decade even. And I know that we have a long way to go still. But I really think that media has given us a more consistent exposure to different bodies and minds and ways of living. And that has been embraced by mainstream media in a way that it never has been before. We started celebrating disabled models, TikTok also gives us a chance to hear directly from disabled creators in a way that we never have been able to before. And I think that's really beautiful. We still, however, are not at the point of creating media from a fully collaborative perspective, like mostly pertaining to mainstream media. So that's a huge missed opportunity. Because if you're going to create something about the disability community, or claiming that it's for the disability community, you need to talk to disabled people. Like that just makes sense to us. Yea, right? But it's still a huge problem where we're not being consulted about media about us, nothing about us without us holds true. But so many media creators are still creating content for allistic, non disabled viewers, without consulting disabled people. And we haven't yet reached the point of many disabled and neurodivergent people, or a majority of disabled and neurodivergent creators being celebrated for their own independent contribution to the world. Everyone's also familiar with, quote, unquote, "inspirational stories of disabled people living their lives," that leave viewers feeling warm and fuzzy. But those videos and stories tend to increase the stigma around disability more than anything. And it doesn't actually inspire real change in how we view the world and how we approach disability. It doesn't actually make people turn inward and look at their own biases, and stigmas around disability that they hold that they may not know about. So you can watch a video of somebody getting dressed and be like, "Oh, wow, that's so beautiful. Go them for existing." But that person is literally just trying to exist. So I think that with media, we have some beautiful aspects. And we also have a lot of negativity that we need to work through. But for the most part, obviously, we've come such a long way in disability justice in our own mindsets and exposure to different people. And overall, I think that it has changed for the better. But of course, there's always more work to be done.
Evan Kelly 29:28
Yes, that's true. And I think you know, with people like you jumping on board and creating opportunity for people in the disability community to connect with each other and build meaningful relationships, that can only push this forward. I think it's great. And I applaud what you're doing.
Christie Faye Collins 29:45
Thank you. Yeah, I'm really hopeful that it will help people, that's the whole idea. I want to know that we're helping people so we have a survey that if anyone's interested in they can fill it out on the website, and that will help us continue creating this for the community and not just what we think the community needs. So yeah, we're really hoping to help people and create an impact on our community in a big way.
Evan Kelly 30:24
And that website of course, is nomiconnect.net. You can take that survey there. Today we have been speaking with Christie Faye Collins. She is the developer of Nomi, a disability and neurodivergent dating app. Just to be clear, it's not up and running yet. They are still in all their testing phases and they hope to have it running by 2023. So Christie, thank you very much for joining us today. Hope we can raise some awareness for you.
Christie Faye Collins 30:54
Thank you so much for having me.
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